We received the following submission from an anonymous female journalist and are publishing it here in its entirety.
There is a scene at the end of Lars von Trier’s movie Dogville where the protagonist, Grace, must decide whether to go back to the gangster father she has run away from, or stay in the town where the men have sexually assaulted her, neglected her, and taken advantage – in various ways – of her vulnerability as a stranger. Confronting her in his Cadillac, Grace’s father says to her: “Power is really not that bad. I’m sure you’ll find a way to make use of it in your own fashion.”
It’s on the principle that maybe power isn’t that bad that I’m writing this, about my time in Kyiv, where I came as a young-ish female journalist to write about the post-revolutionary political situation, and was greeted – initially with generosity – by the more established male western journalists working in the city.
I’d been in touch with a Very Respected Journalist who had been covering the political situation, and – having a few contacts in the country, and having spent a year taking Russian classes – I decided to arrange a visit, partly in my capacity as an editor, partly to see, and to talk to people, and to learn. The Very Respected Journalist met me in a café, we walked around Maidan – I remember thinking, in the early evening, ‘can I write about this? It isn’t my story, I’ve come here late’ – comparing Maidan in my mind to Tahrir and the period of the Egyptian revolution that, in large part, formed me as an adult.
Despite my time in Egypt, I am not a Very Respected Journalist – I write things, friends and friends of friends and the occasional ‘real’ journalist tells me I did a good job, I read and I learn and I listen. I believe to an almost romantic degree in the idea of apprenticeship, and that I’m still undertaking mine. The Very Respected Journalist was, in my mind, on the other side of some initiation ritual to me – not only because his works were widely referenced and read, but because, as either product or process of this, he wrote in tones of authoritative neutrality. He left no stitching showing of himself in his work – something I knew because I’d read everything he’d written this year; he’d never read anything I have.
The Very Respected Journalist had recently hosted another male journalist about five years older than me who I have a lot of respect for, and seemed to be close friends with another older male journalist whose work I admire. I hoped, in the enthusiasm with which the Very Respected Journalist invited me to stay, that I was being initiated into this world – not in the narrow, hacky sense of ‘networking’ and ‘contacts’, but that in a more fundamental way I was beginning to be placed on the same table as these writers I admire.
In an ironic detail I appreciated only afterwards, the Very Respected Journalist said we should go to a bar to celebrate the fact he’d had been awarded a contract to write a report for an NGO. As I tried to drink a glass of beer bigger than my head, he got through several beers, two whiskys, two vodka shots and – I think – some wine. I grimly imagined these churning up together as he talked – about Ukraine, about himself.
He’d invited me to stay at his apartment, where the male journalist slightly older than me had also recently stayed. Now, I don’t know for certain, but given that the journalist who had stayed with the Very Respected Journalist before me went on to write two articles the following week, I imagine his visit to Kyiv went as I intended mine would – the Very Respected Journalist was inviting me to stay as a fellow journalist, a co-worker in the field of writing, and I’d go to sleep and get on with my work.
I was halfway through talking about the political situation in Britain when the Very Respected Journalist called me “baby” (really, people can say that without irony?) and shoved his beer-and-whisky-churned-
At least in my experience, if you have a sexual encounter with a man who has been predominantly sexually educated by pornography rather than from actual, human, flesh-and-blood encounters with actual human women, it often goes something like this: your body is taken to with an operating manual that isn’t its own, but it’s not clear if the operating manual being used is the manual for the other person – and what we have here is just generic selfishness – or whether it is instead more modernly a manual for something just categorically different, made in some very complicated process you’ve never tried to understand, like how to make tractor parts.
And all of a sudden your body, which you’d once been so sure of, gets mixed up with the production of something that has design specifications for, I don’t know, a factory for making factories, a Dubai island shaped like a rocket, something you can’t quite picture the architectural blueprint for, even as you get made into a copy of it. Or at least an approximate copy – because your body’s still your body, fleshy and responsive and whole, and not a component of manufacturing – so it doesn’t, exactly, come out right.
The conceptually significant thing for me whilst these mechanics were at work and I struggled to free myself from his grip is that he didn’t seem to get any pleasure out of it either; his expression was like someone focused on his task of brick-laying. Like we should be worried in case our manager caught us doing our task inefficiently.
It was as inhuman as a shopping trolley — people say ‘bad sex’ and I thought it meant bad sex between two human people, with all the humanness of that. An elbow hits a wall, hair gets caught in fingers, books fall off your bookshelves and for a moment you both stop and start laughing. The British, in their Britishness, give out a shaming annual ‘bad sex award’ to writers of these sorts of moments, but I’ve always thought they were endearing, part of the landscape of human intimacy.
This coercive groping and entitled mauling was the opposite of that. It was so removed any genuinely erotic experience it was more like a technique lifeguards use to get sea-water out of the lungs of the nearly-drowned. This was a man whose articles I had read for months, desperately hoping that one day he might read and respect mine – and now I was just desperately and tearfully hoping he would listen when I told him to please, please, please stop trying to take my clothes off. Please, please, please – this one I only thought because by this point I was too frightened to protest and had gone into play-dead survival-mode– stop telling me to ‘be a good girl’. Please, please, please – as he removed all of his clothes – don’t do the most archetypically, paradigmatically grotesque, immoral, cruel, and obvious thing an older, more established male journalist could do to a younger female journalist who (stupidly? I blamed myself afterwards, obviously – we always do) took you up on your offer to stay with you because that’s what a male journalist in this situation would do.
When he eventually went to sleep, naked and snoring, I fumbled my way through his apartment – as a finishing touch to the scene, cards for sex chatlines sat on his desk alongside copies of the magazine he writes for as a voice of moral authority on ‘European politics’ – and I sat in his shower and cried, dizzy and sick and terrified.
This was the third country in which I’d cried in a shower and checked my body for bruises as a by-product of trying to become a journalist. The discussions about why there aren’t more female journalists covering conflict situations needs to factor in the simple fact that when things like this happen many of us pack up and go home, because wanting to do your job doesn’t make you a masochist. Because there’s already the external front of a war without having to fight off your supposed ‘colleagues’ at the same time. I showered and showered, partly clothed and partly shivering, sat there crying as the water poured insufficiently over me. When I woke up the next day the Very Respected Journalist continued talking to me – talking at me, really – in his authoritative tones. The Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down over Eastern Ukraine that afternoon and parts of my brain shut down. I didn’t get any work done.
I was so angry that I didn’t get any work done. The MH17 disaster forming the baseline of all my thoughts, I became transfixed on this, as I moved on to another Ukrainian city. (I stayed in a hotel this time, to feel crisp starched bedsheets brush against the body that still disgusted me, through association of having being mauled by him). If I could just write a brilliant article about Ukraine, the skin-crawling memory of him forcing his hand between my legs, forcibly kissing me, treating my body like I was a blow-up sex-doll would be undone – would be replaced – by my mind, and by the soothing, trustworthy power of the written word.
But I couldn’t write. Here I was doing what I had always wanted – writing and being paid enough for it to buy more time to write some more – and all I could do is walk up and down the wide city streets, watching young people kiss and old people sitting together, musicians playing accordions along the port like this was all some comedic Eastern European film, and feel alien and broken, imagining, over and over – planes falling out of skies, violent men pinning me down.
In the surreal reeling aftermath of those days, I didn’t understand any of my life until this point, couldn’t coherently tell the story of myself to myself. Did I teach myself languages, write books, and get several degrees, for my career as a journalist to depend on an overweight late-30s man who didn’t even speak the language of the place he was (oh so authoritatively) reporting on, to lift up my skirt as I desperately pushed his hands away while he told me (oh so authoritatively): “come on, be a good girl”? Maybe that really was the world. Maybe this was how it worked. Planes were falling out of the sky, the Very Respected Journalist had behaved the next day as though his behavior was normal – authoritative, commanding – maybe this was how it worked.
When I went back to Kyiv I met with his friend – let’s call him Very Respected Editor. I have always respected the Very Respected Editor in that stupid way that young-ish people can excessively admire people not that much older than them, like they’re some alien species of real-proper-adult. I don’t know if what happened to me was showing on the outside by now, but I remember I was shaking, on his balcony as I tried to tell him what his Very Respected friend had done, shaking in the café where he had already seemed to have forgotten what I told him on the balcony, and over the rest of the time I spent with him, in which the fact a violent crime had been committed on my body seemed to become another source of annoyance – alongside all other the things that made his temper suddenly flare – coming as it was from someone who obviously couldn’t help the Very Respected Editor with his career.
The Very Respected Editor and I are, incidentally, from the same small part of my small country, a historically somewhat neglected area whose accent I’ve deliberately forced myself to shake, and then felt ashamed about it. (So you see, I understand, taking the easy and unprincipled option and then maybe feeling ashamed about it). Coming from there and being female leaves you bereft of trajectory – the clever young men have John Lennon and footballers, firework-bright narratives of ‘making it out’. The women, on the other hand, are – according to our tabloids and our popular cultural tropes – cheap sluts who probably had it coming and deserved whatever they got, the worthless whores.
As the Very Respected Editor – mutated by his own exposure to the toxins of the class system and media cliques – sneered at me over his sushi as though the aftermath of my assault was an irritating obstacle to a good mealtime exchange of journalism gossip, I mentally listed everything I had done to stop being the worthless dirty whore from that town. Paid for all those Hebrew classes. Watched those 24-hour-long Andy Warhol films in Berlin apartments. Learned all the codes and signifiers and shibboleths to trade in in cultural situations. Passed an endless parade of exams. Respected my elders. Respected the codes and principles of the publications I wrote for. Not spoken out when I was sexually harassed – at a magazine, in a government office, at a university. Universities and universities I had run to like the library would wash away the ‘worthless slut who probably deserved it’ stamp, would imprint me anew as someone who mattered and who could not be discarded like an object. Lived in a library for years inhaling every book I could get my hands on. Lived in Paris, subscribed to Vogue. Become – or tried to become – a journalist.
I drew upon our shared background, maybe a little hammily, overplaying it a little, to get the Very Respected Editor to understand where I was coming from. I explained that I didn’t think the Very Respected Journalist deserved to keep his reputation while I got turned into media-gossip flotsam like a worthless dirty slut who had probably been asking for it. He cleared his throat. “Well, it’s sort of useful for me, you know, to maintain a good relationship with him. For the sake of my career, I mean.” Of course, John Lennon, of course, promising young footballer from the north – we stupid slutty women, auxiliary side-plots that we are, cannot get in the way of your great career, the great rocketing narrative of your trajectory out. He softened, “I mean, for you too. You don’t want to look unprofessional.”
I’ve always been struck by the Molly Lambert essay on This Recording, ‘Being a woman in a boy’s club’, for how it neatly pinpoints these moments. It highlights the importance and the difficulty of resisting the cultural pressure by, for instance, male journalists, to be the ‘Chill Girl’, for whom everything is ‘no big deal’ – the girl who, to keep continually buying her precarious and coveted status as one of the guys, polices other women for causing ‘drama’.
Women aren’t universally excluded, aren’t universally harassed and oppressed at all times in every interpersonal interaction – nor are we a homogenous unit of ‘women’ who all have the same background or reaction to a situation. But this moment seemed a manifestation of the particular dynamic of women being ‘let in’ to male-dominated spaces on the condition they prove they’re cool by throwing other women under the bus – or on the provision that they don’t ‘make drama’.
Standing up for myself over fact I’d been assaulted meant committing the crime of ‘making drama’. Being molested probably sucks I guess, but actually react and complain about it, and expect others to speak out on my behalf, and I’d lose my right to ever hold the status of ‘Chill Girl’ in a world where the best role women can often aspire to is, Joan-in-Mad-Men-style, the ‘one female we make an exception for’, the ‘special girl who is not like other girls because she is one of the guys’.
In Ukraine, this gendered dynamic often manifests in discussions with male journalists about the country’s vast sex-tourism industry. Talking about sex workers instead of providing them a platform for them to speak for themselves is such a pervasive and damaging journalistic practice that I do not want to contribute to it here. But on the level of media discourse it is telling that the vast majority of journalism by respected, western journalists on the sex-tourism industry has been by men who do not seem acquainted with the language of female agency, sex worker’s rights, or how global power dynamics manifest in interpersonal interactions.
Even Shaun Walker’s nuanced and intelligent ‘Odessa Dreams’ predominantly occupies the male-client perspective (in which the poor lonely souls are being exploited by the ‘scams’ of the Ukraine bride industry), more than it attempts to enter the interiority of the lives of the real women involved. It’s as though the complexity of their humanity – the fact these women are as real as you and I are – would be a mental leap too far.
The Very Respected Editor described another male journalist covering Ukraine as a ‘lost soul’, which is not the heart-warming language I’d use for a documented misogynist who has been accused of assaulting women. But this caste of male journalists gives complex backstory and forgivable humanity primarily to its own. I know to the broader political situation this is just court politics of a little social stratum, but it is in some ways illuminating of the great whole. Male western journalists, for instance, often squirm in front of female western journalists when discussing the sex-tourism industry, because their usual tactics of charm and euphemism don’t work on your specific combination of power-and-powerlessness in the situation. They look like they’d feel more comfortable if this was a conversation they could be having solely with other male journalists, their gang of guys, since you won’t “shut up and be a good girl”.
Like many young-ish women who are yet to – if we will ever be – taken seriously as experts, I was reluctant to write about what happened to me on my first night in Kyiv, knowing that it would be dismissed as gossip. It’s that boring old double-standard in which, say, Philip Roth writes about his personal life and it’s seen as a profound comment on the human condition, but when a young woman does it it’s seen as trivial and frivolous.
There’s a little irony I appreciate here because, the evening I got groped and ‘be a good girl’d, the Very Respected Journalist and I had been discussing Philip Roth in the bar where we went for drinks. We talked about the American novel in the twentieth century – he was defending Updike, I was making the case that the line-up would be better if we replaced Mailer with Auster – we were exchanging these ideas as though we were two equals. As though I was a member of the club of Very Respected Journalists who I respected so very much. Two hours later, however, I had nothing intelligent to add as he forcibly tried to prise my legs apart and I just repeatedly, sickly and quietly, “no, I don’t want to, I don’t want to, please, can you stop.”
I guess if Philip Roth wrote that scene it would be a profound comment on the human condition. I write it and it just makes me – unheroically, so unlike a Very Respected Journalist – want to sit in the shower until I have scrubbed my skin off.
In some ways it all comes down to this: for all the regressive belief still lingering in our culture that women are sentimentally attached to the tropes of victimhood (and why not anyway, when there are so few central roles for women to play out in their lives that don’t cast them as a side-part?), if you don’t actually want this role – and I don’t actually want this role – its continual resurfacing in your life is a source of infuriation. Big male Great American Writer infuriation, which would probably be taken seriously if one of Roth-Mailer-Updike Great Male Narcissists wrote it down. Burning, uncontainable anger that – for all you’ve tried to do, for all you’ve tried to achieve, for the hours and hours you have worked and worked, the whole languages you have taught yourself – a man can still humiliate you with sexually predatory behaviour, embarrassingly clichéd, 70s Philip Roth-style “come on baby, take it like a good girl” misogyny, and reduce you back to the role of victimhood – which, if you articulate, would apparently just make you ‘unprofessional’ anyway.
If I had been a young-ish male journalist, the Very Respected Journalist might be recommending my work to other Very Respected Journalists right now. If I hadn’t shown disgust at what he did he would have helped me get my press pass in East Ukraine. If he hadn’t molested me maybe I would have written those pieces on the political repositioning of Poroshenko, the dynamics between the internally displaced people from Eastern Ukraine and the cities they have come to, a juxtaposition between the political use of space in Maidan and in Tahrir. I’d have more time to write about the political situation – to write about all the things I wanted to focus my energy on – if the inconvenience of being female in a world in which men can violently degrade and dehumanise women wasn’t taking up so much of my fucking time.
The fact I’m writing this is a failure – not a failure of my ability to be professional, as the sushi-chewing Very Respected Editor implied, nor a failure to ‘be a good girl’, as the Very Respected Journalist who did things to my body against my consent commanded – but a failure to let women get on with their work, the work they want to do, without having to go through the exhausting eternal distraction of dealing with and recovering from sexism – including sexual aggression. The failure is all the unwritten articles and unwritten books of women who have had to instead spend their time recovering from these experiences, or – and who could blame them – decide to stop venturing into this world.
The next time I write I won’t write about my own experiences, because it is so often self-defeating for women to do so, and because I have ‘serious’ work I want to get on with. I just wrote this as a preface for my writing to come, and to burn down everything that came before that first night, now that I am in the aftermath of it. At the end of Dogville, Grace agrees to become her father’s daughter again, and his mobsters burn down the town where Grace had been violated. I just emailed my Dad from Kyiv airport to tell him I’d been away, but now I was coming home.